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Tillage advice: Challenging choices for some as growth kicks into gear

Tillage advice: Challenging choices for some as growth kicks into gear

Michael Hennessy, Teagasc Head of Crops Knowledge Transfer, gives an update on crop performance and looks at some of the difficult decisions facing farmers who have planting outstanding.

Crop growth has really kicked into the gear following the lovely weather over the past few days. This is especially evident in spring barley, which can add a leaf or a tiller every seven days. These later-sown crops will go through their growth stages very quickly and will reach growth stage 30 within two weeks or so.  

However, some land remains to be planted with farmers in the north-east. Although this represents a relatively small area, it is significant on some farms. It is a very difficult decision from here as to whether to plant these fields or not. No matter what crop is planted from this week, all crops will struggle to make a positive net margin. Any crops sown from now on, perhaps with the exception of potatoes, will be harvested later than normal and we all know how difficult it is to combine crops in September.   

Any land not planted still carries substantial fixed costs like machinery, buildings, insurance, labour, etc. These costs can be quite substantial and in many cases exceed €200/ha or €80/ac. Where a crop can achieve any sort of a positive growth margin, this will contribute to these fixed costs making planting the crop a worthwhile exercise. 

Based on the Teagasc Cost and Returns 2023, but adjusting green barley to €190/t (a long ways back from the prices achieved last year), any barley planted this year will need to achieve a yield of  7.0 t/ha or 2.8t/acre  to break even. There's no point in sugar coating it, any spring barley planted this week is very unlikely to reach this yield target. Therefore, it's very unlikely any of these crops will return a positive margin.  

The alternatives

So what are the alternatives? Looking at the other crops which could be planted, very few of them look in any way attractive. Planting spring oil seed rape will inevitably lead to a very late harvest, running into September. This crop can lose its seeds very easily close to harvest, which can destroy yield quickly and also leaves a large weed problem in the future.    

What about maize? Planting maize now would require it to be planted under plastic to have any chance of achieving a good yield. However, plastic is scarce now and sourcing some of the key herbicides for weed control is also a problem. Before you go there, the bigger problem is do you have a market for the maize silage? To achieve a positive margin, a yield a 57 t/ha (23t/ac) at €50/t would be needed. Again, this is a very tall order to achieve.   

The final option may be fodder beet. However, very careful planning is needed before this crop should be planted. If you do not have a committed market for this crop, do not plant the crop. The field where you propose to plant the crop needs to have a high pH and ideally high indexes for P and K. The total cost to plant the crop will run towards €3,100/ha (€1250/ac). At €50/t, a breakeven yield of 62t/ha (25t/ac) is required.

Finally, the last option and the one most farmers will not relish is leaving the land follow for the year. This also creates some problems as weeds - if not controlled - will run wild and add enormously to the field’s weed bank. Therefore I would suggest any field put into follow for 2023 will need to be cultivated at least twice during the year to ensure weeds do not get out of control. This adds cost into the system, increasing the losses from this field. Depending on your rotation, the fallow option can give an opportunity to plan an early crop such as oilseed rape in mid-August this year.

Perhaps the best scenario here would be that any follow land could return to tillage next year thereby increasing the area of tillage area on the farm and allow entry for this increased area into the Tillage Incentive Scheme in 2024. However there is no indication so far that the current Tillage Incentive Scheme will run past 2023.

There is no easy decisions, especially where every option is likely to lose you money.  Contact your local advisor for advice in this area to help with budgets and the difficult decisions facing you in the coming days.

Tillage Edge Podcast

The Teagasc Tillage team provides regular updates on crop management in the weekly Tillage Edge podcast. You can access the podcast here